July 19, 2015

He Has Abolished the Law: Ephesians 2.13-18

The author of this epistle1 makes the startling claim that Christ "has abolished the law" (Eph 2.15). Taken out of context it seems quite shocking, and not at all like anything we find in the gospels.2 To understand it, we need to read it in context:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2.14-16).
By "the law" is not meant the entire Torah. "Do not kill," for example, is still in force. What is meant are specifically those laws that differentiated Jews from non-Jews: circumcision,3 dietary laws, and probably Sabbath observance. These served as markers of Jewish identity, which we might consider a positive thing, but the author here seems convinced that they were a "dividing wall" that contributed to "hostility" between the two groups.

But never mind! With the death of Christ, the two have been made "one new humanity in place of the two"! Here the author is very much in agreement with Paul.

The British scholar N. T. Wright notes that, for Paul, Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, a covenant "whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized."4

God had promised Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation," and that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12.2-3). The coming of Christ is the means by which this blessing is extended to "all the families of the earth." (This is what Paul is getting at in Galatians 3.)

The law, writes Paul, "was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal 3.19). The law, Paul writes, "was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (Gal 3.24-26). 

And then, in the climax to Galatians 3, Paul writes,
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3.28-29)
The wall of separation, i.e. those laws that separated Jew from Gentile, has come down. This is what the author of Ephesians means when he writes that Christ "has abolished the law."

Of course, while this may have made sense to Paul and those who soon followed in his wake, history since that time has told a very different story. Far from creating one group out of two, the coming of Christ has simply added another group. Far from subtracting a dividing line between peoples, it has added yet another.

If this was God's plan, to break down the "dividing wall," and end "the hostility between us," we must admit that this plan has failed, and failed miserably.

Unlike a lot of Christians on the progressive end of the spectrum, I quite like Paul and find much of value in his writings. But his interpretation of Jesus's role in God's plan for the world has been falsified by history.

[1] Although this letter identifies its author as "Paul" (Eph 1.1, 3.1) most scholars are convinced that it was written by someone else. Raymond Brown estimated between 70 and 80 percent of scholars denied Pauline authorship, and he included himself in this number (Introduction to the New Testament, 628-630). I'm inclined to agree with this, which is why I don't refer to the author of this letter as "Paul." But it was clearly written by someone who understood Paul very well, even if he differed from Paul in some respects.

[2] Cf. Matthew 5.17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." Actually, this verse is probably not from Jesus himself. As John P. Meier points out, "this apparently clear statement of principle is probably, at least in its present form, a creation of Matthew or his church. Matthew’s redactional hand is clearly visible in both the wording and the placement of 5:17" (A Marginal Jew, 4.41). Ulrich Luz affirms that "It is risky to attribute this saying to Jesus and to make it the central point for interpreting Jesus' understanding of the law" (Matthew [Hermeneia], 1.211).

The contradiction between Ephesians 2.15 and Matthew 5.17 is less blatant in the original Greek, as two different verbs are used (katargeō in Ephesians, katalyō in Matthew), but it is still difficult to reconcile these two verses, and it's certainly difficult to imagine Jesus agreeing that he had "abolished the law," even in the restricted sense intended by the author of Ephesians.

[3] That the author has circumcision in view is evident from Ephesians 2.11, where he notes that Gentiles were called "the uncircumcision" by Jews, who called themselves "the circumcision." He notes that this circumcision was "made in the flesh by human hands," perhaps suggesting that this was merely a human custom.

[4] Wright, Justification, 12. It should be noted that Wright's interpretation of Paul is quite controversial, at least among Protestants who think (with some justification) that he has undermined the traditional Protestant understanding of "justification by faith." Actually, I think Wright gets Paul exactly right. But whereas Wright thinks Paul was right, I think Paul was demonstrably wrong, at least as far as his interpretation of God's plan for the world goes.

July 12, 2015

No Bread, No Bag, No Money in Their Belts: Mark 6.7-13

Jesus sends the Twelve, in pairs, to proclaim his gospel message about the reign of God.1 The most striking thing about this passage is Jesus's instructions on how they are to travel: "He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics" (Mark 6.8-9).2

Most scholars seem to think the instructions on what they could and could not bring were symbolic (that is, they were done for the benefit of those who would see the apostles, and they would find some meaning in what they saw). John P. Meier, for example, writes,
Such renunciation of the ordinary equipment for a journey was meant as a prophetic symbol of the urgent, eschatological, life-or-death nature of this brief mission, as well as a symbol of the disciples’ total dependence on the God who was beginning to regather Israel through them.3
I kind of wonder about this, though. Would the people in the villages they visited really interpret it that way? I'm not convinced Jesus was primarily concerned about how they would be seen by others. I think it was done not for the benefit of outside observers, but for the apostles themselves.

This story actually reminded me of something early in my teaching career, when I was teaching religion in a Catholic high school. I brought a grade 11 or 12 class (I can't remember which) on a trip where we were taken on a tour to learn about the life of drug addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless. The tour guide had the students try something that was way out of their comfort zone: for an hour and a half or so, they had to pretend to be homeless and see how they would be treated by strangers.

Because they were doing this for such a short time, I don't think it was quite as eye-opening as the tour guide hoped it would be. But the purpose of the exercise was clear: he knew that in order to have any understanding of what it's like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers—and endure hostility from some of them—you can't do better than actually trying it out for yourself.

And I can't help but wonder if that's what Jesus was doing to his disciples. If Jesus understood his vocation as, in part, bringing "good news to the poor" (cf. Luke 4.18), and if he expected his disciples to do the same, perhaps he wanted them to understand the people he was so concerned about.

Now, one might argue that his disciples were already poor. And in a sense, they were. But when we understand what "poor" means in the context of the gospels, we find that Jesus's disciples would not have been considered poor.

The Greek word translated "poor" in the gospels (in the NRSV) is ptōchos.4 This is not run-of-the-mill poverty; it's more like destitution.5 It originally meant "begging," and typically refers to those who are "dependent on others for support."6

The Twelve apostles were, as far as we know, gainfully employed before Jesus called them. They were not rich men, but they were not ptōchoi, either. So traveling in such a manner as described in today's reading would have been an educational experience: they would learn the hard way what it means to depend on strangers for support.

 [1] Scholars often try to find some symbolism in the number two. Some find it likely that this "reflects the OT stipulation that two witnesses are required to establish legal testimony" (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.383). This strikes me as somewhat farfetched, since they are preaching a religious message, not testifying in legal setting. Morna Hooker admits as much, but defends this interpretation nevertheless, noting that "the idea that any kind of testimony needs corroboration seems a natural corollary" (The Gospel According to Saint Mark [BNTC], 155). I don't really buy it. Jesus, after all, preached on his own. And the disciples were merely relaying Jesus's message, not something they had "witnessed" themselves.

I think there were two because sending them individually would not have been as safe (Jesus knew his message could provoke anger, as we saw in last week's reading), and three would have been less efficient. This was recognized by the 11th century bishop Theophylact of Ohrid, who noted that if Jesus "had sent more than two, there would not have been a sufficient number to allow of their being sent to many villages" (Aquinas, Catena Aurea, 2.108-109).

[2] A number of scholars, notably John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, esp. 338-339), have argued that this reflects the influence of Cynic philosophers, but I find this unconvincing. 

Basically I agree with Paul Rhodes Eddy ("Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis," JBL 115 (1996): 449-469), who finds the similarities between Jesus and the Cynics superficial and ultimately insignificant compared with the vast differences between them. He argues that Jesus is better understood within the Jewish wisdom tradition, in that his teaching is very Jewish in both content and form (especially his use of parables). The "Cynic theorists," however, reduce Jesus's Jewishness "to little more than an ethnic accident" (468). Also, whereas the Cynics prized self-sufficiency, Jesus's teachings "attest...to one's absolute dependence on God" (463). In addition, there is no evidence of a Cynic presence in Galilee during Jesus's time (463-467). A more compact argument against the Cynic hypothesis can be found in Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), 192-193. 

Joel Marcus has suggested that, while there are some "overlaps" between Jesus's instructions and the practice of Cynic philosophers, "there are more extensive parallels with the Exodus tradition":

Presumably, their needs for food and shelter will be catered to by those who receive their message. But in a deeper sense the disciples will be looked after by God, and in this regard it is significant that there are strong overlaps between the Markan description of their equipment and OT portrayals of the gear of the Israelites whom God led out of Egypt and sustained in the desert for forty years. As the Markan missionaries will not need to bring bread with them, so the Israelites did not need to take bread because manna rained down on them from heaven (Exodus 16). As the Markan missionaries are enjoined to take only one suit of clothing, so the wandering Israelites did not need to replace their garments, since they were supernaturally preserved from deterioration. (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.389)
Marcus thinks that Mark has deliberately inserted parallels to the Exodus story to suggest "that the disciples' missionary journey will be a participation in the new exodus inaugurated by Jesus"  (Marcus, Mark [AYB], 1.389).

I find this possibility very intriguing, but I prefer to think about this a little more realistically, as if this is a story that might actually have happened.

As far as that goes, I think that there is likely some historical event underlying this story (see Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3.154-157, for a detailed argument), although it is clear the story as we find it here has been shaped by Mark for his own purposes.

[3] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3.155.

[4] The only exception I can find is Luke 21.2, where "a poor widow" translates tina chēran penichran. But she's described as hē chēra hautē hē ptōchē ("this poor widow") in the very next verse.

[5] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 271-274.

"πτωχός," BDAG, 896.

July 5, 2015

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth: Mark 6.1-6

At first the people of the synagogue in Jesus's hometown of Nazareth seem impressedmore than impressed, actually: "astounded" (exeplēssonto).1

We are not told exactly what "wisdom" he shares with them, but we can surmise that it was something unfamiliar and new, something they have not heard before. Why else would they be "astounded"?

This feeling quickly fades, and Jesus begins to realize that this congregation is not like the one he encountered in Capernaum (Mark 1.21-28). They too were astounded (the same verb exeplēssonto is used of them as well). But the people in Capernaum were ready for something new. They recognized that although he brought a "new teaching," he taught it with "authority."

The people in Nazareth are not so receptive. They liked what they heard—at least, at first—but it will take more than the preaching of a local woodworker to get them to change their views.2

So they turn on him, as people tend to do when their religious convictions are challenged. Jesus responds with a familiar proverb, as he knows this is an old story: "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." He added that last part himself, perhaps reflecting a little bitterness at the fact that his own family doesn't believe what he's been trying to tell them (cf. Mark 3.20-35).

But what was he trying to tell them?

Like I said earlier, Mark doesn't tell us. But I suspect it might be the same message Jesus began his ministry with: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1.15).

If this doesn't sound offensive to us today, it is only because we have domesticated the gospel message. We have made it safe so that we don't have to live up to its challenge.3

We have decided that what the "gospel" requires of us is only to believe in a story about Jesus, about how he died for our sins, and how we are saved if we believe this. But obviously this is not what Jesus meant by the "good news," as he was preaching it long before he died.4

We have decided that the call to "repent" (metanoeite) means something like "feel remorse for our sins." While it can mean that, that's not what Jesus meant by it. The repentence (metanoia) that Jesus calls for is something far more profound; it demands transformation, not only belief. 

Transformation is hard; we tend not to like it. We resist any understanding that will require it. We find ways of justifying our resistance: "Isn't this guy only a carpenter?" 

Today's reading reminds us that we need to stop doing this.

[1] This verb does not necessarily have a positive connotation. It appears also in Luke 2.48 (where it is translated "astonished" in the NRSV), to describe the twelve year-old Jesus's parents when, after searching for him for three days, they find him at the Temple. Obviously they were not pleased.

It is also found in Matthew 19.25 to describe the reaction of the disciples when Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were "greatly astounded," and asked, "Then who can be saved?" It seems to me that this was a worried reaction, not a positive one.

[2] "Woodworker" translates the Greek tektōn, usually (as in the NRSV) translated "carpenter." The author of the Gospel of Matthew changed it to ho tou tektonos huios, "son of the carpenter" (Matt 13.55) perhaps reflecting embarrassment over Jesus's occupation. Some manuscripts of Mark have been assimilated to Matthew's version, possibly for the same reason. 

This may seem odd to us today, but embarrassment over Jesus's occupation was real: Celsus, a 2nd century philosopher and opponent of Christianity, had mocked the church for following a lowly tektōn. Origen responded to this by denying that Jesus was ever described as a tektōn in any of the gospels (Contra Celsum 6.36), which would seem to indicate that Origen was only familiar with the variant reading of Mark 6.3.

[3] Some Christians might argue that we can't live up to the challenge, and that this is the real point: to show us what hopeless sinners we are. But this is a cop-out; Jesus did not demand the impossible.

[4] It is also true that the gospel Jesus has been preaching cannot have anything to do with his identity as "Messiah," which won't be revealed in Mark's Gospel for another couple of chapters. And even then, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8.29-30).

April 2, 2013

I Don't Think It's Time for a "New Nicaea"

Mark Etling wrote a thought provoking piece posted on NCR on Sunday: "Time to reunite all Catholics with a new Nicaea."

My initial reaction was quite positive, so I started to write a post for this blog describing what I liked about it. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that this might actually be, in some ways, a terrible idea. So I scrapped that post.

Etling notes that "Catholics are deeply divided over issues of theology, authority, scriptural interpretation, tradition and canon law," which is obvious enough to most of us.

He then writes,
Developments in archeology, biblical exegesis, historical research, psychology and other disciplines make me wonder whether the Nicene Creed remains sufficiently elastic to embody the truths of Christianity as they—and the Christians who recite it—have evolved.
This is a good point. And toward the end of his article he makes a "new Nicene Creed" on of his proposed agenda items. But why would anyone think that a new creed would promote unity? Much of what Etling suggests would create more division, not less. The same goes for his suggestion that the canon of scripture should be "expanded." But it seems to me that the cost of doing that, in terms of lost common ground with other denominations, would far outweigh any benefits. I'm quite familiar with the early Christian literature Etling is talking about, and I can't even think of what those benefits are.

I don't see how either of these suggestions would achieve the kind of unity that Etling says they would. (I get the feeling he doesn't spend a lot of time listening to conservatives or traditionalists!)

On the other hand, some of his ideas are quite good. A number of his agenda items could actually be implemented without a council. An "up-to-date" affirmation of God—one that takes into account our "new and rapidly changing understanding of the universe, our ever-deepening awareness of the beliefs about God in other religious traditions, [and] the deeply troubling questions about God's willingness and ability to prevent both moral and natural evils"—and a "broader understanding of revelation," have already been articulated in many brilliant works of theology written over the past several decades. Encouraging the best and the brightest theological minds—instead of silencing them and destroying their careers—would be a terrific start to making these a reality.

One of Etling's ideas that I definitely do agree with his the need for a "broader understanding of salvation":
Nicene orthodoxy focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the defining soteriological events. Implicit in this assertion was the belief that humanity needed to be, and was, saved from sin through the cross and Resurrection. But recent scholarship has shown us that salvation from sin through death and Resurrection was not the only soteriological paradigm among the earliest Christians. Likewise, contemporary existentialist philosophy and clinical psychology have led to the development of a model of personal wholeness that focuses on self-knowledge through therapy and introspection as the key to mental health and wellness. Based on these advances, a broadening of our understanding of salvation to include the teachings of Jesus on the necessity of overcoming ignorance of self should be included to expand our understanding of salvation.
This speaks to the question of just what the church—and religion in general, for that matter—is really for. In the church, traditionally, "salvation" has been understood as the primary end of the Christian faith. At some point "salvation" was reduced to "going to heaven and avoiding hell," and the purpose of religion was largely reduced to what Brian McLaren describes as "a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin."1

I think this "soul-sorting" idea has lost its purchase on the hearts and minds of many Christians; it just doesn't seem credible—it isn't credible—and countless people who were never persuaded of any other reason to remain in the church have simply shrugged it off and dropped out.

But again, I think this is something that could be accomplished by letting theologians do their job, and getting better people into the priesthood—which would mean, at the very least, not restricting it exclusively to celibate men! (Of course this would be divisive, but I don't subscribe to the view that we should value unity over everything else, especially questions of basic justice.)

Despite my ambivalence about some of his ideas, I definitely think Etling has written a thought-provoking article and highly recommend giving it a read.


1. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 35.

March 29, 2013

Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

Could Jesus have survived the crucifixion? Most people would certainly say "no," but, as James McGrath points out in his book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, claims that he did survive do crop up from time to time.

A believer might be content to take the Bible's word for it, but a historian has to consider the evidence.

McGrath points out that it was possible to survive crucifixion. He writes of the Jewish historian Josephus,
At one point he came across some of his friends who had been captured by the Romans and were in the process of being crucified. He petitioned for them to be taken down from their crosses, and one of them managed to survive (Life of Flavius Josephus 75.420-421). It was therefore possible to survive crucifixion at least in cases where the crucified individual was taken down relatively quickly from the cross.
He says that others have suggested that the vinegar given to Jesus might have been a drug meant to knock Jesus out, making it look like he was dead, so that he might be taken down and later revived. In addition, he says, the story of the Roman soldier piercing Jesus's side might have been created to counter the claim that Jesus didn't actually die.

McGrath points out, though, that "the Romans were quite adept at execution, and it seems unlikely that friends of Jesus would have been able to give him a drug to cause him to appear dead, thereby outwitting the Romans." If that was even possible, it probably would have been tried numerous times, and there would be some mention of it in texts from that era.

Furthermore, he says, "Jesus’ followers were willing to give their lives in later years for their conviction that Jesus had not simply survived death, but had been raised from death and seated at God’s right hand." That they were willing to die for this belief doesn't mean the belief was correct, but it strongly suggests they actually believed it. And they didn't just believe it, they made it a central part of their message. This, he points out, is "crucially important" evidence:
Most people in that time would have assumed that crucifixion by the Romans was a clear indication that someone was not the Davidic Messiah. It is the closest thing one can imagine to an automatic disqualification. Had Jesus survived the Romans’ attempt to execute him, that would surely have become a centerpiece of Christian proclamation.
The Burial of Jesus is a good read (and a short one, too; I downloaded it the other day and was finished in less than an hour and a half). I do recommend it.

February 20, 2013

My Latest Heresy

I read the first few chapters of Garry Wills' Why Priests? last night. I chuckled a bit when I read about a "heresy" I didn't realize I was guilty of (to add the many others I'm very much aware of), namely that of the Stercoranists. These dangerous heretics asserted that the bread and wine of the Eucharist, after being ingested, were subsequently digested and then excreted. You know, like food.

So, if they're not digested (and excreted), then exactly what does happen to them?

Well, that's one of those questions you're just not supposed to ask, apparently.

It's best not to think about it.

February 18, 2013

The Hereafter

If you had asked me when I was a child what happens to us when we die, I probably would have said, "We go to heaven." On a superficial level I probably believed that. I imagine I believed that I believed that.

But I have some very vivid memories, from the time I was eight until I was into my late teens, of lying awake at night, unable to sleep, terrified of ceasing to exist after I died. Thoughts of the afterlife were of no comfort. I don't even remember having such thoughts. Death meant annihilation. Looking back now, this is what I really believed, and I lost a lot of sleep over it.

By the time I went to university I was, for all intents and purposes, an agnostic. I was also suffering through a period of depression that began in high school and didn't let up until halfway through my second year. That was when, very early one Saturday morning in January, I had an insight into something that happened when I was four years old, and had haunted me ever since. I'm not going to go into any detail about what it was—it's not at all relevant to this post—but suffice it to say, I was finally able to forgive someone for saying something that was really quite damaging to me, and for which I had been harbouring an almost-conscious resentment for the better part of twenty years (though, looking back, it was probably perfectly innocuous from his perspective).

My mind started racing and I had what I soon started calling, ignorantly but not entirely inappropriately, my "Zen experience." Actually, it wasn't a single experience. Over the rest of the weekend I had over a dozen of them. They were relatively brief, always came unexpectedly, and at first I found them quite terrifying. I thought I was losing my mind. But the insights I was having made too much sense, they were so inarguably true, that I was soon able to embrace the experiences when they came.

The most salient insight that occurred to me I later recognized as what the Buddhist tradition calls pratitya samutpada, which is translated in a number of different ways (e.g., "conditioned arising," or "dependent origination," among many others).

But accompanying it was something else, something not obviously related to that: I "knew" that death is an illusion; that is, it is not the end that I had previously imagined it to be; it does not entail the annhilation I had lain awake dreading as a child, but had, after several years of mind-numbing depression, rather calmly accepted as our inevitable fate.

I couldn't account for this "knowledge" (which is why I put it in quotation marks: I have no way of justifying it epistemologically). And I had no insight into what came next. But I was certain that it wasn't nothing.

And for a long time after that, I was content to leave it that: whatever came next was necessarily unknown. We could speculate; we could imagine an eternal heaven and hell, a temporary sojourn in purgatory, a cycle of birth and rebirth, or an existence as ghosts haunting the future owners of our homes. But these were, I thought, necessarily speculations, and nothing more than that. Given that we couldn't know (or even be reasonable confident) that one was more likely than another, it was best to remain agnostic on the subject of what comes next.

Basically I agreed with Martin Luther's approach to the matter, as described here by Marcus Borg:
Luther expressed our not-knowing about the details of the afterlife with a particularly apt analogy: we can know as much about life beyond death as a fetus traveling down the birth canal and about to be born can know about the world it is about to enter. How much is that? Nothing. Yet the analogy affirms that there is something at the end of the journey.1
When I first read this years ago it made a lot of sense to me. But I've done some reading over the past few years that has convinced me that we are not necessarily as in-the-dark as I previously imagined.

But that will be the subject of an upcoming post. Maybe more than one.


1. Borg, The God We Never Knew, 175. Borg does not say where in Luther's writings this can be found.